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Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors Report Cards: What grade did Nick Nurse receive for the 2018-19 season?

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Nick Nurse (NBA Canada Illustrations)

As the dust settles from the Toronto Raptors' first championship, we're rolling out our Raptors Report Cards on each key member of the team from this past season. Before turning the page into the 2019-20 season as free agency begins, we'll take a closer look back at how everyone performed in 2018-19.

Nick Nurse's first season as head coach of the Toronto Raptors was a resounding success.

The icing on the cake is obviously him leading the franchise to its first ever title, but Nurse made some key adjustments along the way that set the Raptors up for a championship run. The first step was making changes to the starting lineup by splitting up Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas, who started alongside each other for 72 games in 2017-18.

Nurse continued to do the same when the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol at the trade deadline for a package including Valanciunas, moving Gasol into the starting lineup and Ibaka to the bench.

Not only did splitting them up give the Raptors a modern lineup and ensure they had a starting-caliber centre on the court at all times, it opened up minutes for Pascal Siakam to start at power forward. That seems like an obvious decision now that he's proven to be one of the league's up-and-coming stars, but it still wasn't clear who would start alongside Kyle Lowry, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard during preseason.

Had Nurse not empowered Siakam in the way he did, there's no way the Raptors come close to winning the title this season.

Something else Nurse did well during the regular season was keep the Raptors playing at a high level despite Leonard missing 22 games, mostly due to "load management." Having lost only five of those games, it helped the Raptors finish the season with a 58-24 record, the second-best in the league. That secured them homecourt advantage in all but one series in the playoffs - the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

MORE: How the Raptors changed stylistically under Nurse

Any concerns about some of the other decisions Nurse made in the regular season were quickly put aside with the moves he made in the playoffs. Some of the more notable ones:

  • Matching Gasol's minutes with Joel Embiid. He didn't do it at the start of the series, choosing to instead save it for the last few games. Embiid was a different player when he was being guarded by Gasol compared to Ibaka.
  • Moving Leonard onto Jimmy Butler in important moments. Green guarded the four-time All-Star for most of the series, but Leonard was by far the team's most effective defender on Butler. According to NBA.com, Leonard limited Butler to 15 points on 4-for-11 shooting from the field (36.4%) over seven games.
  • Making Leonard the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo for Game 3 onwards. Leonard had similar success against Antetokounmpo. According to NBA.com, Leonard limited the favourite to win MVP this season to 30 points on 12-for-34 shooting (35.2%) over six games. The latter is a remarkable figure considering almost all of Antetokounmpo's shot attempts come in the paint.
  • Breaking out a box-and-one in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. Even though the Raptors lost the game, it limited the Golden State Warriors to three points in the game's final four minutes. It also showed that Nurse wasn't afraid to try something new when Toronto's back was against the wall, even on a stage as big as the Finals.

Perhaps the most important of all: Nurse trusted Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell even when they were struggling, both in the regular season and playoffs. It paid off in a big way, as Powell scored double figures in three straight games against the Philadelphia 76ers and VanVleet dominated from Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals onwards.

Nurse trusted the starters to get it done when they were struggling in the playoffs as well. Much was made of the need for him to change the starting lineup after they fell into a 2-0 hole against the Bucks, but he wisely stuck with them. Gasol was a big reason why the Raptors won Game 3 - he had one of the best games of his postseason career with 16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks - and Green delivered in two of their wins in the Finals, scoring 11 points in Game 1 and 18 points in Game 4.

All in all, Nurse navigated the Raptors through a tricky regular season and did the one thing Dwane Casey was criticized for not doing in his time as head coach of the team - make the in-game adjustments needed to get the Raptors over the hump in the playoffs.

The result? History, in more ways than just one.

Grade: A+

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